Predictably, the Journal Doth Protest (Global Warming Edition)

The Wall Street Journal’s editors have weighed in with their objections to the first of four reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued last week. And predictably, they dispute the work of 2000 scientists from 113 countries by claiming the “full scientific report” due out in May undercuts the “short policy report” issued last week.

Now, not having seen that report, it’s hard to make any sort of response, which makes this angle a clever rhetorical device. But the Journal has a history of playing fast and loose with facts on its editorial page. And one has to believe, with so many reputable scientists involved, and the enormous play the report has gotten, that someone, perhaps even a vocal minority, would have stepped forward to protest if the data were misrepresented. Scientists aren’t known for being a shy bunch, and since the scientists involved in this effort work for a host of institutions, there isn’t a structure in place to coerce them into silence.

No, instead of finding a mole, the Journal trots forth one Lord Christopner Monckton, who the Journal describes as a “one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher who has become a voice of sanity on global warming.” His recent claim to fame is having written a series of articles for the UK’s Telegraph last fall critiquing the science on global warming. Here is Dr. Stephan Harrison’s (a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Exeter and Senior Research Associate at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment) take on Lord Monckton:

Perhaps the most extraordinary and telling thing is that a paper like the Sunday Telegraph has to rely on Christopher Monckton, a journalist and former political advisor to Margaret Thatcher, to attack the science behind contemporary climate change. As far as I can tell he has no qualifications in the field of climate science and I doubt he was written a single scientific paper on the issue. The fact that nowadays the skeptics camp can hardly field a single informed scientist to support their views and have to rely on Monckton, surely says something about the weakness of their arguments.

To go through his long article and the even longer set of supporting notes he provides and point out his mistakes would take far longer than I have here, and has been done comprehensively by other climate scientists on the Realclimate weblog, so I will just point out some of his worst errors….

You will find his full critique here.

Oh, amusingly, the WSJ editorial also argues that the models have been inaccurate. One of the reasons the climate scientists are more confident of their findings is that the new models are more powerful and accurate than their past ones. So focusing on past errors, while narrowly true, again is at odds with the current state of play. Ironically, the Journal’s own news story on the report said if anything that the IPCC models were understating the problem:

U.S. government scientists Friday said the long-term outlook for global warming may be more dire than suggested by this week’s United Nations’ report, which they say doesn’t fully address the impact of clouds and melting glaciers.

Recent evidence of accelerated melting of glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic ice cap came too late to be included in the report released Thursday by the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciers are among the largest sources of fresh water in the world and are contributing to rising ocean levels. Rising sea levels could expose population centers bordering the ocean to more storm damage and could require evacuation in some areas. But the computer models used for the IPCC report based their predictions only on the results of heating of the existing water in the world’s oceans, causing the oceans to expand and sea levels to rise, said Tom Delworth, a climate modeler for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government agency in charge of climate science and weather service.

The IPCC report predicts sea levels will rise by between one to two feet over the next 100 years. Mr. Delworth said there remains “much more uncertainty” over how much accelerated melting of glaciers might add to that.

A second area of continuing uncertainty has to do with the impact of clouds on climate change. Warming the ocean sends more water vapor into the air, and the resulting clouds accelerate global warming by trapping more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere and further warm the ocean. Jim Butler, deputy director of NOAA’s global monitoring division, called this “a very scary feedback mechanism.”….”

Admittedly, these scientists said this was a very complex modelling problem, that even with computers a million times faster than the ones available today, there would still be some uncertainty.

And the last amusing bit is the Journal citing AIDS, malaria, and clean water as competing priorities for scarce resources. Since when did problems that mainly afflict the third world ever take precedence over something that could upend the first world?

To the editorial:

Last week’s headlines about the United Nation’s latest report on global warming were typically breathless, predicting doom and human damnation like the most fervent religious evangelical. Yet the real news in the fourth assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be how far it is backpedaling on some key issues. Beware claims that the science of global warming is settled.

The document that caused such a stir was only a short policy report, a summary of the full scientific report due in May. Written mainly by policymakers (not scientists) who have a stake in the issue, the summary was long on dire predictions. The press reported the bullet points, noting that this latest summary pronounced with more than “90% confidence” that humans have been the main drivers of warming since the 1950s, and that higher temperatures and rising sea levels would result.

More pertinent is the underlying scientific report. And according to people who have seen that draft, it contains startling revisions of previous U.N. predictions. For example, the Center for Science and Public Policy has just released an illuminating analysis written by Lord Christopher Monckton, a one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher who has become a voice of sanity on global warming.

Take rising sea levels. In its 2001 report, the U.N.’s best high-end estimate of the rise in sea levels by 2100 was three feet. Lord Monckton notes that the upcoming report’s high-end best estimate is 17 inches, or half the previous prediction. Similarly, the new report shows that the 2001 assessment had overestimated the human influence on climate change since the Industrial Revolution by at least one-third.

Such reversals (and there are more) are remarkable, given that the IPCC’s previous reports, in 1990, 1995 and 2001, have been steadily more urgent in their scientific claims and political tone. It’s worth noting that many of the policymakers who tinker with the IPCC reports work for governments that have promoted climate fears as a way of justifying carbon-restriction policies. More skeptical scientists are routinely vetoed from contributing to the panel’s work. The Pasteur Institute’s Paul Reiter, a malaria expert who thinks global warming would have little impact on the spread of that disease, is one example.

U.N. scientists have relied heavily on computer models to predict future climate change, and these crystal balls are notoriously inaccurate. According to the models, for instance, global temperatures were supposed to have risen in recent years. Yet according to the U.S. National Climate Data Center, the world in 2006 was only 0.03 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in 2001 — in the range of measurement error and thus not statistically significant.

The models also predicted that sea levels would rise much faster than they actually have. The models didn’t predict the significant cooling the oceans have undergone since 2003 — which is the opposite of what you’d expect with global warming. Cooler oceans have also put a damper on claims that global warming is the cause of more frequent or intense hurricanes. The models also failed to predict falling concentrations of methane in the atmosphere, another surprise.

Meanwhile, new scientific evidence keeps challenging previous assumptions. The latest report, for instance, takes greater note of the role of pollutant particles, which are thought to reflect sunlight back to space, supplying a cooling effect. More scientists are also studying the effect of solar activity on climate, and some believe it alone is responsible for recent warming.

All this appears to be resulting in a more cautious scientific approach, which is largely good news. We’re told that the upcoming report is also missing any reference to the infamous “hockey stick,” a study by Michael Mann that purported to show 900 years of minor fluctuations in temperature, followed by a dramatic spike over the past century. The IPCC featured the graph in 2001, but it has since been widely rebutted.

While everyone concedes that the Earth is about a degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago, the debate continues over the cause and consequences. We don’t deny that carbon emissions may play a role, but we don’t believe that the case is sufficiently proven to justify a revolution in global energy use. The economic dislocations of such an abrupt policy change could be far more severe than warming itself, especially if it reduces the growth and innovation that would help the world cope with, say, rising sea levels. There are also other problems — AIDS, malaria and clean drinking water, for example — whose claims on scarce resources are at least as urgent as climate change.

The IPCC report should be understood as one more contribution to the warming debate, not some definitive last word that justifies radical policy change. It can be hard to keep one’s head when everyone else is predicting the Apocalypse, but that’s all the more reason to keep cool and focus on the actual science.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email